As expected, Donald Trump swept the five primaries in the northeast earlier this week, dubbed the “Acela Primary” by media outlets. However, in victory, Trump exceeded expectations, winning by margins that can only be described as, well …. yuuuuge.
The Republican frontrunner won every county in Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania – even taking John Kasich’s birth county, Allegheny, by a 51/28 margin. In five states, Trump only lost seven towns or counties on his way to punishing majority wins. And in only one of these five states did Ted Cruz, the most significant obstacle to Trump’s nomination, come in second.
Trump’s opponents within the Republican Party now have to put their hopes on the upcoming primary in Indiana. They argue that the front-runner cannot gain a majority of delegates before the convention in July. That argument is based in large part on the percentage of support and votes Trump received earlier in the primaries, where he scored in the mid-30s in both votes and polling status.
Unfortunately for those making the argument, patterns in both voting and polling have changed. After a stumble in Wisconsin, Trump has won majorities in subsequent primaries in April. At the same time, Trump’s rise in polling has confounded the conventional wisdom that the consolidation of the race to fewer candidates would demonstrate a mid-30s ceiling for Trump among Republican primary voters. Instead, the national-polling aggregation at Real Clear Politics shows his average support rising into the mid-40s, and coming close to majority support in the latter half of April.
The argument that Republican primary voters don’t want Trump to win the nomination appears on the edge of disintegrating, perhaps in Indiana, where Cruz and Kasich have staked their hopes at creating a contested convention. The assumption had been that a movement conservative like Cruz would appeal to Indiana voters, and that pragmatists would gravitate toward Kasich, leaving Trump out in the cold in this winner-take-all state. Three polls in the last two weeks have put paid to that assumption; Trump leads all three, and has a nearly seven-point advantage over Cruz in the RCP average.
Both challengers must have realized the implications, because they crafted an unusual deal in which Kasich (who trails both Trump and Cruz in Indiana by double digits) would urge his voters to cast ballots for Cruz, while Cruz would do the same in the later primaries for Oregon and New Mexico. While such strategic alliances are not unknown or illegitimate in politics, it does look desperate, and may end up backfiring on Cruz.
Kasich has not endeared himself to Cruz’s “movement conservatives” in this primary, and coordinating efforts with Kasich may call into question how far Cruz will go to win – and whether he can be a reliable conservative president once in office. If those conservative voters hold the key to his ability to garner enough delegates in Indiana and California to go to a second ballot, they may not be as eager to play his game.
In the end, does Indiana matter? Even if Cruz and Kasich manage to lock out Trump from any significant delegate allocation, there is little doubt that the real-estate magnate is pulling together more of the party behind him. The argument that Trump only represented a minority slice of the GOP has become tougher and tougher to make. As much as Cruz has out-hustled Trump in delegate selection, it looks likely that Trump will finish with just enough delegates to win – or close enough that the groundswell of popular support for him will sway enough of the unbound delegates to conclude the matter on the first ballot.
All Trump needs to do is to focus outward on a shared opponent to keep that momentum going – which is exactly what he did on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. He shifted the focus of his blunt and personal attacks to Hillary Clinton, who also won big on Tuesday night, ridiculing her reliance on the “woman card” in both his victory speech and on Good Morning America the next morning. “If she was a man,” Trump said, “she’d get five percent.”
That kind of attack will be music to the ears of Republicans who blame Mitt Romney for going on the attack against Barack Obama – even if that conclusion about the loss in 2012 is entirely wrong. They would be delighted to imagine that kind of attack in the presidential debates this fall, with Trump pulling out all stops to derail Hillary Clinton. That promise will certainly play on the minds of unbound delegates when the first ballot gets called in Cleveland. The fantasy debate might sound something like this:
CLINTON: I have a strong record as Secretary of State in safeguarding American interests and policies around the world:
TRUMP: You got four people killed in Benghazi, then lied about it and covered it up. You should be in prison, not the White House.
CLINTON: How dare you impugn my integrity, you bigot and misogynist!
TRUMP: The only reason you’re here is because you were married to Bill -- admit it. Admit it! If you were a man, Sanders would have cleaned your clock in the primaries.
Whether or not that’s realistic – or would be effective with voters in swing states Republicans need to win – is almost beside the point. More and more Republicans are picking Trump in large part because of his outrageous attacks, not despite them.
For better or worse, it’s now almost inevitable that the GOP will get exactly that outcome, and it won’t be because a small clique managed to outbox the majority. By the time Cleveland rolls around, it might be that a majority out-boxed the conservative minority within the Republican Party.